Thanks to social media, we constantly joke about “shrinking attention spans,” as if this is a phenomenon embroiling only the younger generation. We lamented when Twitter forced everyone to concentrate for 140 bytes before surfacing for air. We renewed our interest in “a picture is worth a thousand words” when Instagram hogged the limelight from Facebook and the latter had to buy out the former to remain relevant. But this attention span decline is happening in more places now, to young and old alike, and, for artists, is slowly shrinking their world as they struggle to be noticed and stay relevant.
Take the conventional book launch. Ten years ago, a new book released was an event, even when held during off-peak hours in a grungy club or restaurant. Attracting a hundred people—by throwing in a discount on the new book, and adding a musician and a few poets to spice up the main event—was a no-brainer. Make that number twenty attendees today, and that would be a decent sized crowd, people would say. Because, in the good old days (but ten years ago) while yours was the only book launch on that particular day, today there are a half dozen others in town to go to as well.
How about the book review? This format was conventionally a discussion on the merits and demerits of a book distilled down to its elements: characterization, plot, prose style, pacing, theme and message, with a few observation on the author and her other work, and on how this new book fitted into her oeuvre. The book’s author or publisher did not pay for the review as there was supposed to be a Chinese wall between creators and judges. Today, the review, like the book, has become an income stream for the reviewer, and authors pay for reviews because there is a hypothesis that more reviews sell more books; thus reviews written by the unskilled flood the market. The accent has gone from the objective to the subjective; a reviewer often writes about how she “felt” about the book.
And what of the blog post? Reader engagement via comments was pretty standard, and motivated the blogger to continue writing. Today, no one responds as there is too much content online; quality has given way to quantity, and one wonders who reads these short essays anymore. Some have found ways to monetize blogs with advertizing, and so the blogs have transformed into imaginative but unproven “how to” pieces: “How to Drive Your Man Crazy in Bed,” or “How to Enlarge Your Penis.” Online discussion groups were once lively and generated instant feedback. Now, those message boards sit idle like jilted brides. And Blog Tours—forget about them; no one shows up other than the blogger who, like a lurking sniper, anxiously waits at his keyboard to begin typing the moment he sees a sign of life on the forum, while the participant is scared to show his head for fear of attracting a hail of comments with the overt message: “Buy my book!”
What’s up on You Tube? There’s some life here because it involves passive visual absorption on the part of the recipient. But use it only if you have something shocking to reveal that will attract gawkers and get them to share your post with the millions of other unrelated gawkers in cyberspace. Serious material should be avoided, and if serious stuff is all you have to share, it should last no more than three minutes (how can you get serious in three minutes?).
Audio? The sight-impaired may go for it, but those with all their senses still functioning prefer audio to be limited to a subliminal message playing in the background while they multi-task on other activities. There is no time to just sit and absorb a single channel anymore.
And therein lies the problem: THERE IS NO TIME. And: THERE IS TOO MUCH SUPPLY. These evil twins have done it in for the artist, more than advancing age that makes getting out to a book launch difficult, or waning eyesight that makes the search for meaningful online content a chore.
So what do we do? Well, first of all, let’s accept the reality. Acceptance will go a long way in preventing you from bashing your head against the wall. Accept that we are in a time in history when technology has democratized content, leading to an information tsunami that also brings flotsam in its wake. Accept that people will self-select in a time of plenty, and develop your audience one member at a time, potentially with meaningful exchanges that will be remembered. Be happy with smaller, focused fan bases. Don’t try to earn a living from this business. Let art come when it comes, unfettered by monetary pressures and the need to erect barriers to entry for others. This may mean getting a day job that will drain more of your energy, turning you into a part-time artist or a burnt out one. A tough new code, no doubt, but an essential one, so that we keep our heads, while all about us others are losing theirs and blaming it on social media.